Mara Altman puts body hang-ups -- facial hair! crotch smells! armpit stains! -- under a feminist microscope

Mara Altman

Mara Altman Pablo Mason

Mara Altman knew she was onto something after she told the world about her chin hair.

In 2012, Altman published an essay titled “Bearded Lady” about her unwieldy facial hair. Her confessions resonated with female readers who filled her inbox saying they also agonized over follicular growth but were afraid to talk about it. For Altman, the obsession with the hair and its removal had become so all-consuming that she couldn’t even unwind with her fiancé.

“Every time we were together, I wasn’t being very present with him,” she says. “I was mostly just like, ‘Is he seeing my hair?’ and trying to hide my hair.”

She finally screwed up her courage to tell him about her facial hair and…he didn’t care. “That gave me so much freedom. I felt so happy. I mean, I didn’t want to sport a goatee, but I felt more at peace with it,” she says.

The writer began to wonder what other female body issues provoke shame, why women feel so self-conscious, and what women can do to reframe the shame. The result is Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front (and Back), her new non-fiction book that combines memoir, reportage, and interviews with academics and experts on the ways we deal with the disgusting things our bodies do.

Sweat, belly-button lint, vaginal odor, hemorrhoids – it’s all in there. While some of these concerns might seem petty, they still take a toll on women’s energy levels and well-being.

“You’re spending all this time in front of the mirror or worried and you could be spending that time being really present with your friends, with your partner, thinking about things that are productive in your life instead of being really down on yourself,” Altman says.

In addition to the fixation aspect, women spend an inordinate amount of time “correcting” these perceived body flaws. They may limit their wardrobe to black clothing (to disguise damp armpits) or avoid intimacy because of insecurity about their appearance or aroma “down there.”

At worst, women’s body shame can be lethal. As a colorectal nurse told Altman, women “literally die of embarrassment” because they refuse to tell their doctors that something might be wrong with their butt, thereby missing out on a potential cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Altman isn’t suggesting that we throw decorum out the window, however, as some things truly are TMI.

“I don’t think we need to go around telling everyone about our farts or hemorrhoids necessarily,” she says, “though if that was the case, hey, if that’s what’s going on, that’s cool. It would be great if people felt comfortable enough in their bodies that they could go to their doctor and say, ‘Hey, look at this.’”

She also doesn’t think that women need to forgo their grooming routines or even cosmetic surgery in the name of feminism.

“I don’t think there should be shame around wanting to change your body or do things that make you feel more beautiful,” she says. But in the book, even she struggles to accept procedures like labiaplasty, which alters the shape of the inner and outer folds of skin around the vulva. While Altman initially objected to women’s pleas for the “Barbie look” procedure, she came to realize that some women undergo labiaplasty for a variety of reasons, such as long labia that chafe during exercise or protrude from swimming suits. Others do it simply to increase self-esteem.

“Maybe I’ve been able to view the world only through my own very specific vulvar experience,” she writes. “Maybe I was part of the problem. Women are shamed enough for not reaching impossible physical standards; should they then be shamed again if they try hard to attain them?”

Ultimately, she says, it’s the culture that needs to change. In the meantime, Altman hopes women will feel more at peace and less angsty about their bodies and what they do to them. Though researching and writing Gross Anatomy hasn’t changed her grooming habits or beauty routines, per se, psychologically, she feels freer.

“I don’t catch every whisker, and I don’t freak out about it,” she says. “Not having my mind go to that, spending energy that way, is an amazing change.”


Mara Altman, Gross Anatomy
Magers & Quinn
7 p.m. Thursday, August 23